Utah UCC member, former U.S. military contractor kayaks for PTSD awareness
Written by Emily Schappacher October 14, 2013
Mary Southerland and her service dog, Henry, with her kayak.
One of the rare times Mary Southerland felt compelled to leave her house after being diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder was to attend a marriage equality vigil organized by Holladay United Church of Christ. Southerland, a former U.S. military contractor, wasn't yet a member of the Holladay, Utah, congregation, but the thought of a local church gathering in support of gay rights was too intriguing for her not to witness for herself. So with her psychiatric service dog, a Labradoodle named Henry, Southerland went to the June 2013 rally and ultimately found the support she so desperately needed to help her deal with her illness.
Within weeks of attending services at Holladay UCC, the congregation not only gave Southerland a platform through which to share her story, but also helped her organize a campaign to raise awareness about PTSD and give a voice to other sufferers like her.
"I realized that what I needed was to speak up about how hard this process was," Southerland said. "Everyone [at the church] trusted and knew how important it was to get my voice going because they could see how broken and desperate I was."
Southerland was inspired by another U.S. military veteran and UCC member, Tom Skinner, who bicycled across the country last year to raise awareness of PTSD. A lover of the outdoors, Southerland decided that she would kayak down the Ohio River while collecting signatures for a petition supporting the work of Purple Star Veterans & Families, a nonprofit organization that helps families of veterans lost by suicide or addiction. She also would document her experiences in her blog, A Contractor and Her Dog.
Southerland began her journey on Aug. 4, with Henry and a support team following along in a van. A network of UCC churches along the Ohio River learned of Southerland's efforts and rallied in support, offering her hot meals and places to sleep, and inviting her into their congregations to share her journey and to speak about PTSD.
"Every single congregation I walked into had their arms wide open, raised funds, allowed me to speak, signed petitions," Southerland said. "I met some incredible people."
After kayaking up to 12 hours a day, sometimes traveling as far as 40 miles at a time, Southerland finished the 54-day trip at the end of September. Her efforts garnered local media attention, and on Oct. 9, Southerland headed to Washington, D.C., for a week of interviews with CNN, Al Jazeera America, and the National Journal.
After her time in D.C., Southerland plans to retrace her journey down the Ohio River – this time by car – to reconnect with some of the people she met along the way and expand on their stories - like the family of Cody Lee Baker, a U.S. Army veteran who committed suicide in August after being denied help from the Veterans Administration four times.
"I'm hoping that I'll be a success story, but I will be a success story because I could share all of these other stories of people who identify with me," Southerland said. "I know I'm not alone in my pain nor am I alone in my healing process."
While Southerland's journey down the Ohio River allowed her to finally tell her story in a way others could understand, she is far from recovered from PTSD. But she has been able to find things that help ease the pain. She credits her dog, Henry, to "no doubt" saving her life. He motivates her to get out of the house, minimizes the discomfort of being in public by keeping other people at a distance, decreases her anxiety by always being aware of their surroundings, and wakes her up when she has intense, reoccurring nightmares. Her doctors, psychiatrists and therapists, family and friends also help her get through each day. But her church is possibly the most surprising saving grace Southerland has found yet. The way she was welcomed by UCC congregations throughout the country is something she never expected, and it has helped her see the good in a bad situation.
"Many people say, 'Did this trip heal you?' or 'This must have been such a healing experience,'" Southerland said. "But the biggest misconception about mental illness and PTSD is you don't know when you're going to be well. That is the awkward part that people don't want to hear about. I'm not suddenly better. It's a lifetime battle. It's not a story that ever really ends.
"But I have given my body and my story up so hopefully other people will know that there are people out there who care and who will help," she continued. "The UCC is really a community of people and I'm proud to be a part of it. Really proud."
Sunday, Oct. 20 is Mental Health Sunday. The UCC's Mental Health Network invites congregations to highlight mental health issues and provide education and support to members with mental health challenges. For more information about the UCC's Mental Health Network and Mental Health Sunday, or for access to resources, visit the Mental Health Sunday website.